From far away the shores of the Salton Sea are gleaming, white, empty, and possess an almost serene quality, especially when the day is cool and a little cloudy, and a soft blue haze hangs over the water and distant mountains. On days like these the smell of rot isn’t so bad, and when I park my car on a road that ends abruptly at a drop-off where there used to be water, I don’t feel like gagging. It’s quiet here in the town of Desert Shores. There are few other people around, and the noisiest thing I hear are three small, dirty dogs running wild in the street, and the little children that are chasing them.
Here by the car, my view of the shore a little obscured by distance and the drop-off into what was once a boat launch, the beach almost looks like white sand. If I ignore the rusty color of the water, the fish bones scattered around my feet, and the remains of a trailer home that’s decayed down to its steel frame -- well, it’s impossible to ignore all that. Here, standing in front of it, it’s impossible to ignore anything about the Salton Sea, a prototype for the end of the world, a little apocalypse in the southern California desert.
There’s a now-familiar, unnerving silence here. On the northern shore, opposite of where I am now, is a town called Bombay Beach, and it is the quietest place I have ever been. It was on my first trip to the Salton Sea that I visited Bombay Beach, right after I’d moved to Palm Springs on a whim. There’s a levee there that separates the town from the water, and to see the sea you have to climb a small, narrow set of concrete stairs to the top. The heat and the stench were suffocating, and as I looked at the sea for the first time, it wasn’t the rust-colored water, or the dead animals, or the abandoned boat that bothered me -- it was the silence. I turned around and looked at Bombay Beach, its houses and streets arranged in an orderly grid. I didn’t hear a single voice, or bird, or car, or lawn mower, or anything at all. I saw no one. Out here, there are no planes overhead, there’s no interstate humming in the background. It was a total silence that made me feel uneasy and unwelcome, and that I was an intruder, an apocalypse tourist surveying this desolate place with the security of a home far away to return to.
Now, here in Desert Shores, I feel that same tension. My footsteps seem too loud, and my presence seems too obvious. I pass a No Trespassing sign as I walk down the hill into the boat-launch. At the bottom is a plastic, child-sized Jeep half buried in muck, and covered with a thick, textured layer of salt and other grime. There are tires too, real tires, from adult-sized cars, covered in this same calcified sludge. The water that’s pooled here is dark brown and rainbow-sheened, buzzing with bugs and foul-smelling.
It’s not long before the silence is broken by the sound of another car pulling up and parking next to mine. Two people get out and I tense a little, thinking that maybe these are the people who are going to enforce that No Trespassing sign, but then a child follows them and I think, Oh, more apocalypse tourists. The Salton Sea once attracted real tourists, families on vacation who came from Los Angeles and the Coachella Valley to stay in the many resorts along the shores. Back then the Salton Sea was a wonder, a miracle in the desert, a place whose future was so bright it blinded everyone to the unsustainability of this man-made ecological disaster. This was decades ago, before flooding and over-salination destroyed the sea and washed away all the resorts and killed this kind of tourism permanently. Now we’re here, myself and this family, part of a new type of tourism, the kind that comes to the Salton Sea not to vacation but to gawk at a real-life worst case scenario for an afternoon and then flee. I’m aware of how deeply weird this is. That these particular people have brought their child with them makes it all the more bizarre. He’s running around, trying to get into the little disgusting Jeep. What must he think of this place?
I walk away from the little apocalypse family toward the beach, where this is no one, and it’s silent again. The sands along the shores of the Salton Sea aren’t sand at all, but millions upon millions of desiccated mollusks, so numerous and deep that my feet sink into them and disappear, and my shoes fill with the little shards. The fish bones scattered around are bleached white from the sun, and they get into my shoes, too.
I’m hard-pressed to think of another place where environmental ruin is so obvious and so accessible. Perhaps the Salton Sea as it was half a century ago would have survived somewhere else, somewhere normal , but the desert of southern California is not a normal place. Here the summer heat soars to 120 degrees Fahrenheit and above, and this heat wrecks havoc on the water and everything that lives in it. Warm water is a prime environment for algal blooms, and they will ravenously eat every molecule of oxygen in the water and leave nothing for the millions of tilapia with whom they share these waters. The tilapia will then die en masse, sometimes at a rate of a million a day, and the smell of rotting flesh will drift beyond the Salton Sea up to Palm Springs, and then on and on to Los Angeles, 160 miles away. It’s a cycle that’s been in motion for decades. The heat comes, the fish die, the maggots eat the fish, the birds eat the maggots, and then they die, too, because the maggots are botulism vectors and the birds have no other options here in the desert.
The wetlands of California, once extensive, have long been drained and built over, and the Salton Sea is really all the birds have left. They have no idea what’s beneath these waters, especially, I can imagine, on days like these, cool and calm, blue and almost beautiful. They fly in on their migratory journeys looking for food and a place to rest, geese and cranes, pelicans and grebes. Their bones are here, too, on the ground with the fish: whole corpses, nothing living around to scatter their bones, and so here they lie, forever, in the exact positions in which they died.
I turn around and look at the houses that face the sea, waterfront properties that are all but worthless. Some people here are transplants, priced out of wherever they came from, with nowhere else to go, like the birds. Some are leftovers from when the sea was known as the Desert Riviera, that time when the future seemed to hold riches, and they had no idea what was coming, either. These people are now old and will die waiting for the boom times to come again.
You can describe the current state of the Salton Sea as waiting . All around the sea are towns criss-crossed with empty streets paved and named in the 50’s, waiting for houses that will never be built. You can pick up land for a song here. I find a listing for 10 acres in Salton City for just under $4,000, waiting for buyers who will probably never come. It seems every legislative cycle there’s a new plan to clean up the sea, and we’re just waiting for funding. Waiting, waiting, waiting.
It’s difficult at the best of times, in the best of places, to get money for the environment, but the Salton Sea is a disaster that most people prefer to pretend doesn’t exist. The magnitude of the problem is difficult to overstate. It’s a disaster that facilitates death to such a degree that it can be smelled from hundreds of miles away. When you’re standing in front of it, and you see how massive it is, it’s hard to imagine that there’s any amount of money, or attention, that can fix it.
At the end of 2017 Riverside County proposed and passed yet another plan to “save” the Salton Sea. There’s a rich history of the various governments of California ignoring and then hastily passing measures to do something about the Salton Sea, but these plans are extraordinarily expensive and usually the money doesn’t materialize. This new plan will cost $400 million and will essentially dam off the small portion of the sea that’s in Riverside County, route the Whitewater River into it, and create yet another man-made lake inside a bigger man-made lake that will supposedly attract tourists and business. It should be noted that the Salton Sea is huge, and most of it is in Imperial County, and there is no part of this $400 million plan to address a single square inch of this portion of the Salton Sea. Desert Shores, where I am now, is in Imperial County.
The Salton Sea cannot be allowed to dry up, as it naturally wants to. For eons it was a dry sink that filled with water when rains came or when rivers changed course and drained into it, and then, with nothing to maintain it, it evaporated. Today it is surrounded by farmland, and the water runoff from these farms has maintained the Sea for more than a hundred years. There’s no natural outlet from the Salton Sea. What goes in stays in. This includes pesticides, and the hundreds of millions of tilapia. Their yearly die-off doesn’t make a dent in their population. They come back every time, just like the birds.
I can see something large jutting out of the ground in the distance, and I walk toward it. The rhythmic crunching beneath my feet is loud and satisfying, like autumn leaves. The bits that have made their way into my shoes are pulverized by now, and the little pieces are stabbing my toes through my socks. The thing is a giant, rusted anchor, easily eight feet tall, on its side, looking out at the sea. Maybe a flood in the future will return it to the water for a while. For now the sea’s waters are steadily receding, and as they do, they expose a bed of toxic nitrogen, phosphorus, and other pesticides, and when that dries it will take to the air in giant dust clouds that will poison everything: the shore-side towns, Palm Springs, Los Angeles. This is why the sea cannot be allowed to evaporate. It must be kept, and for as long as it is here, the cycle of death will trudge on.
It’s difficult to tell what kind of birds these are, the dead ones at my feet. They’ve been dead for a long time. I try not to think about their lonely deaths, or the apathy that has allowed this to happen, all of it, the toxic runoff and the poverty and the sea itself. Nowhere else have I been has the concept of an invasive species been so apparent, its destructive nature so clear. I can’t pin the blame on the fish, or the mollusks, or even the farmers, though. The whole sea is an invasive being. The engineers that unleashed the Colorado River in 1905 couldn’t have possibly imagined this scene: the fetid water, the animal bodies, the poverty, the smell. The vacationers of the 50’s and 60’s didn’t foresee it, either. Boom and bust. Life and death.
I walk away from the beach, climb out of the boat launch, walk past the No Trespassing sign, and turn to look at the Salton Sea one more time. From back here, it’s serene again. The light today is truly beautiful, the kind of light you can only find in the desert. The faraway mountains are wrapped in a light that gradates from blue to pink. Birds delicately alight on the water. No , I want to scream, Turn back. I take off my shoes and pour out the bones.